Appalachian Basin

Digging Deeper Into those 243 DEP Determination Letters

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) recently released a list of 243 determination letters that identified cases where the agency found that private water wells were affected by oil and gas activities. Unsurprisingly, anti-fracking activists and some news outlets pounced, trying to link fracking to contamination – but as usual, that’s not what the data on the list actually shows.

Here are a few key facts to know about the determination letters on the Pennsylvania DEP’s list:

Fact #1: The fracking process did not cause water contamination

Not one of the 243 determination letters described fluid migrating from thousands of feet below the surface to contaminate anyone’s water supply. Of course, that’s right in line with the findings of experts and top regulators across the country, who have said that hydraulic fracturing has not harmed groundwater. As a Department of Energy study explained:

“A landmark federal study on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, shows no evidence that chemicals from the natural gas drilling process moved up to contaminate drinking water aquifers at a western Pennsylvania drilling site.”

A recent peer-reviewed study found that the upward migration of fluids during the fracking process is “not physically plausible.”

Fact #2: Only one well showed the presence of drilling mud – the large majority of cases described naturally occurring minerals

Out of the 243 determination letters, only one well showed the presence of drilling mud, while the large majority of the wells had naturally occurring minerals in them (methane, manganese, iron, aluminum, arsenic, barium, sodium, TDS, turbidity), which have been found in water wells nowhere near oil and gas development as well.

That’s important because, while these minerals can occur from a disturbance caused by drilling, it’s certainly not specific to oil and gas development.  Any vertical drilling, whether it’s a water well, shale well or conventional oil or gas well, can cause these minerals to be disturbed. Take for example this paragraph from determination letter 204:

“These results showed the water well gas to plot within the Immature Microvial Gas Range. This is indicative of glacial gas that is naturally occurring in your area. The gas was likely disturbed by drilling that took place in your vicinity.” (emphasis added)

Further, because Pennsylvania lacks any private water well regulations or standards, contaminates can seep into water wells that are improperly constructed. According to a study by the Center of Rural Pennsylvania:

“Millions of rural and suburban Pennsylvania residents rely on private wells for drinking water, and, each year, 20,000 new wells are drilled. While research has shown that many private wells in the state have failed at least one drinking water standard, Pennsylvania remains one of the few states without any private well regulations… About half of the homeowner participants in this study had never had their water tested properly, which resulted in low awareness of water quality problems.” (emphasis added)

Fact #3: Pennsylvania presumes operators to be responsible for any water well problems within 2,500 feet of a drilling operation

It’s important to understand the laws and specific practices operators are required to follow to protect ground and surface water supplies. Amendments to the Oil and Gas Act of 1984 – specifically section 208presume operators to be responsible (for up to six months) for any impairment of a private water supply within 2,500 feet of their drilling operation.

That means that even if a private water well is found to have minerals that could be naturally occurring, the operator must assume responsibility regardless and repair the water to “pre-drill” quality.

Because of these stringent regulations, operators are working with landowners and independent certified laboratories to perform predrill tests of water supplies prior to any development taking place. This is something Energy in Depth has written about in the past – see here, here and here.

The fact that regulators presume operators responsible combined with the fact that Pennsylvania lacks of private water well regulations must be taken into consideration when evaluating these letters of determination in order to have the full picture.

Fact #4: Several cases showed temporary contamination before returning to pre-drill water quality

As the letters demonstrate, in many cases the water supplies were not affected for a long period of time – or “forever” as those opposed to shale development would like you to believe.  In fact, many of the wells were restored naturally, or were brought back to “pre-drill” quality by the operator.  In some cases, this resulted in even better water quality than the “pre-drill” water samples.

Here are just a few examples from the determination letters explaining how the water was restored:

  • From determination letter 111:”Water quality has returned to background conditions.”
  • From determination letter 131:”By the time of my sampling on March 20, 2008 your spring had already returned to pre-drill quality.”
  • From determination letter 176:“Sample results from the water tests taken on May 26, 2010 indicate that all parameters are within drinking water standards and that the contamination was not long term.”
  • From determination letter 163:“Operator has restored your water supply through deepening your well and cleaning your filters and treatment system. The final results indicate that your water meets drinking water standards and in some cases exceeds pre-drill test results.”
  • From determination letter 140: “Actions taken by the operator appear to have rectified the problems with your spring.”
  • From determination letter 158:“It is my understating that the operator drilled a water well and you agreed to install a water softener. Water test results indicated that all the parameters tested were within drinking water standards, except iron. However, the water softener should take care of this problem.”
  • From determination letter 167:“Operator has installed treatment on the water supply at both your primary residence and your trailer. Sample results indicate that these systems have returned your water supplies to below drinking water standards.”
  • From determination letter 199:“Operator drilled new water well and installed a water treatment system. Current water well meets drinking water standards”

Fact #5: The incidents make up a fraction of one percent of all wells drilled in the Commonweath

Any incident where water is affected means improvements need to be made (and the industry’s goal is to have zero incidents).  But as always perspective is key – and it’s important to look at these 243 incidents not only in the context of the facts just described above, but also in the context of the number of wells drilled in the Commonwealth. Since 2006 30,034 gas and oil wells were drilled – 21,689 conventional and 8,345 unconventional. That means that only a fraction of one percent of all those wells had any issues.  If we were able to determine conclusively which of these wells had mineral migration unrelated to drilling, that percentage would be even lower.

Context was also something that DEP spokesman Eric Shirk stressed when looking at these letters.  He also made the important point that these incidents are decreasing in number.  As he put it,

“Because of the work we’re doing, these cases are on the decline,” he said.

Unfortunately all this information above was left out of articles, as media outlets are clearly putting page views before integrity.  Headlines like “Thanks to Fracking There’s Something in the Water in Pennsylvania” are a prime example of this.

The natural gas and oil industry is always striving to improve operations. By following the strict guidelines and operational procedures it is also mitigating effects on water supplies and the environment. Further, Pennsylvania’s continued ability to develop its shale resources has brought enormous benefits, which include curbing pollution, providing family sustaining jobs in the Commonwealth and helping lower energy costs all over the Northeast region – and that’s an important part of the equation too.

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